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Pence endorsement in Ariz. governor’s race puts him at odds with Trump

Pence and Trump, who are considering 2024 presidential runs, will both campaign in Arizona on Friday

Vice President Mike Pence speaks at the “Latter-day Saints for Trump” Coalition launch event on Aug. 11, 2020, in Mesa, Ariz. (Ross D. Franklin/AP)
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PHOENIX — Former vice president Mike Pence on Monday endorsed Arizona gubernatorial candidate Karrin Taylor Robson, a developer who has long been involved in Republican politics, instead of former president Donald Trump’s chosen candidate, Kari Lake, a former TV anchor who continues to falsely claim that the 2020 election was “stolen.”

The endorsement illustrates the division in the party between Trump supporters who value loyalty to him over all else and those who want to move on from endlessly litigating the 2020 election, including those who are grateful that Pence and other Republicans blocked Trump’s attempts to overturn the results. Trump and Pence, who are each thinking about running for president in 2024, both plan to be in Arizona on Friday to campaign for their chosen candidates ahead of an Aug. 2 primary.

Pence called Taylor Robson “the best choice for Arizona’s future” in a statement provided to The Washington Post. “As Arizona Democrats pursue the reckless Biden-Harris agenda, Karrin Taylor Robson is the only candidate for governor that will keep Arizona’s border secure and streets safe, empower parents and create great schools, and promote conservative values,” he said.

Taylor Robson praised Pence’s conservative credentials and said she wants to lead as he has.

“Modern politics is full of charlatans and fakes, but Vice President Pence is the genuine article,” she said in a statement to The Post. “He has never wavered in his conservative beliefs and commitment to our Constitution, and left a rock-solid legacy as Governor to which I will aspire.”

Lake said she viewed Pence’s endorsement as laying the groundwork for a 2024 presidential run. She minimized his role in the the gubernatorial race and referred to him as a “Republican in Name Only,” one of Trump’s favorite insults.

“At this point, it’s clear that Mike Pence has an electoral interest in taking down Donald Trump and everyone who supports him,” Lake said in a statement to The Post. “The battle lines are drawn in Arizona, and this is just one more example of the RINO establishment doing absolutely everything they can to stop our America First movement.”

The endorsement comes two months after Pence and other prominent Republicans lined up behind Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R), whom Trump targeted for certifying the 2020 election. Kemp won in a landslide. But Arizona’s gubernatorial primary appears far tighter, raising the stakes for Pence. Split-screen campaign events Friday will underscore Pence’s breaks from the former president since he, too, defied pressure to overturn Trump’s 2020 loss.

During a Nashville conference on June 17, former president Donald Trump ridiculed former vice president Mike Pence for certifying the 2020 election results. (Video: Reuters)

Taylor Robson also has the backing of Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R), a longtime friend and ally of Pence, who co-chairs the Republican Governors Association and similarly drew Trump’s ire for affirming the results of the last election.

Lake and Taylor Robson don’t offer dramatically different visions on issues like the economy and water conservation. Both want the state to take a more muscular position on border security, for example, and want to finish Trump’s border wall. But they diverge on the 2020 election.

Lake has called the election system “rotten to the core” and has claimed, without evidence, that thousands of fraudulent votes were cast in 2020: “I refuse to stop talking about it until our elected official stand up and do something. We want people to be arrested, prosecuted and thrown in jail.”

In a televised debate in June, Lake repeated the falsehood of widespread fraud in the election and said that Joe Biden “lost the election and he shouldn’t be in the White House.” She said she would not have certified Arizona’s election results.

During the debate, Taylor Robson, who voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020 and helped raise $1.3 million for both of his presidential campaigns, agreed the 2020 election “was absolutely not fair” but would not say it was fraudulent.

She cited new voting rules and laws ushered in by some jurisdictions amid the pandemic and so-called suppression by big tech and media of information damaging to Democrats.

“All of those things together led to 78 percent of Arizona Republicans thinking something was wrong with the election,” she said during the debate. “But I am focused on 2022 because the left is 10 steps ahead of us and I don’t have the time to explain what they’re doing.”

Taylor Robson said she will accept the results of the gubernatorial election. Lake said at a recent campaign event that Taylor Robson’s rivals “might be trying to set the stage for another steal.”

Analysis: Republicans grow bolder in endorsing against Trump

Emily Ryan, a conservative political consultant in Arizona, said the governor’s race showcases a nationwide struggle over the GOP’s identity, with two leading candidates who share many of the same conservative stances on policy but represent different styles of governing.

“There is a part of the Republican Party that’s not comfortable with the direction that Trump has taken the party and that brand of politics and is sort of trying to wrestle back some control,” Ryan said.

An adviser to Pence said the former vice president will visit the border on Friday, joined by Taylor Robson and Brandon Judd, who is president of the National Border Patrol Council and has endorsed her. Pence will also head to Phoenix, said the adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the endorsement more candidly.

Trump is scheduled to appear at a rally in northern Arizona the same day to campaign for Lake and a slate of his preferred statewide candidates. He originally planned to visit this past weekend but rescheduled to Friday after the death of his former wife, Ivana Trump.

The adviser said Pence sees Taylor Robson as “the most conservative candidate in the race” and was considering an endorsement before Ducey announced his support on July 7. Pence and Ducey grew close during Ducey’s own run for governor in 2014, and Pence wants to help Ducey in his final year as governor and chairman of the RGA, those close to both men said.

A Pence adviser also noted Lake’s attacks on Pence last month after he visited the border in Arizona. Lake told Newsmax she does not think Pence has a “snowball’s chance in Phoenix to win” if he runs for president in 2024 and said many people are “disappointed” in him for his actions on Jan. 6, 2021, when he helped certify the election after pro-Trump rioters attacked the U.S. Capitol.

“I think that was something that we as advisers were frustrated by, and it certainly kind of refocused our attention on that race,” Pence’s adviser said of Lake’s criticisms.

Lake, a one-time Democrat during the early years of President Barack Obama’s first term, is running as an America-first populist in the mold of Trump. She secured his endorsement about a year ago and has spent the intervening time building a passionate base energized by her embrace of baseless conspiracy theories and divisive culture war issues, including accusing drag queens of being dangerous to children and advocating putting cameras in classrooms to make sure teachers don’t teach critical race theory-related curriculum.

Taylor Robson is campaigning as a more traditional low-tax, less-government conservative focused on business-friendly policies. She lagged well behind Lake in the polls for much of the race but has drawn closer recently while far outspending Lake, breaking statewide campaign spending records.

With early voting already underway, Pence’s endorsement could help sway moderate Republicans and independent voters who have requested GOP ballots, especially in Phoenix’s far-flung suburbs that have helped settle close contests in recent years. The former vice president has also long been popular with Christian conservatives. Republicans Scott Neely and Paola Tulliani Zen also are vying for the Republican nomination.

Some see a Pence endorsement as risky for Taylor Robson since it will highlight the national currents shaping the race.

“Do you really want to take Trump on or do you just want to continue to narrate your own story?” Chuck Coughlin, an Arizona political strategist whose firm works with Republican candidates, said amid reports Pence might weigh in. “And my feeling is a Pence endorsement makes it more about Trump.”

But for Pence, Coughlin said, the Arizona governor’s race is an opportunity to send a message and possibly share in a victory.

“You’re thinking about Iowa,” he said, referring to the state that traditionally kicks off presidential primary season. “You’re thinking about the next two years.”

With a possible campaign of his own on the horizon, Pence has been stumping for Republican candidates around the country and has a foundation, Advancing American Freedom, that advocates for conservative causes such as restrictions on abortion. Pence’s Advancing American Freedom Foundation recently made a six-figure contribution to an ad campaign by the antiabortion group Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, which will support antiabortion legislation at the state level, according to Pence’s adviser.

Pence’s Jan. 6 tightrope: Owning his role while courting Trump voters

Pence’s support for Taylor Robson marks his highest-profile endorsement since he campaigned in Georgia with Kemp, who easily defeated Trump’s handpicked challenger, former senator David Perdue. Pence framed the race as referendum on direction of the GOP.

“When you say yes to Governor Brian Kemp tomorrow, you will send a deafening message all across America that the Republican Party is the party of the future,” he told an Atlanta-area crowd on the eve of the primary. Republican governors around the country, including Ducey, had rallied to protect incumbents from Trump-endorsed primary challengers amid what one ex-governor dubbed a “personal vendetta tour.”

Trump’s gubernatorial picks in Idaho and Nebraska also suffered defeats this year. But the former president’s endorsement remains coveted in GOP primaries and has given significant boosts to candidates for the House and Senate.

Pence and Trump have also both endorsed Sarah Sanders, the former White House press secretary, for governor in Arkansas. And last month Pence announced his support for Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.), a gubernatorial candidate in New York, who won his primary and also had the New York GOP’s backing. Trump remained neutral in the New York primary, which featured multiple allies of the former president — including Andrew Giuliani, the son of Rudy Giuliani.

Knowles reported from Washington.

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